Category Archives: US Culture

Kids are the future? So are older adults!

[Image description: A sepia-toned drawing of an older gentleman playing a violin. He is wearing a hat, a scarf, and a suit jacket with two buttons buttoned. He is smiling and appears joyful. The background includes musical notes. Image obtained from Pixabay.com]

In college—Washington University in St. Louis. Yeah, go Bears!…If that’s still relevant!—I volunteered with the Campus Y and led a program called SAGE (Service Across GEnerations). We students would wake up early on Saturdays, hop on the school shuttle, and visit seniors at a nursing home. We played checkers and cards and talked to the seniors. There was Joyce, who enjoyed drawing penguins and who always called me Lou. And Mrs. Mosbey, a 90-year-old blind woman who listened to the radio and kept up with current affairs, who constantly ribbed me for being vegan. “You need to eat some meat,” she would say, “it’ll put some hair on your chest.”

As delightful as the visits were, it was extremely difficult to get other students to participate. Whereas the program where you read books to small children had over a hundred volunteers each day, SAGE always had just four to six of us. This was not from lack of trying. We had amazing posters! I remember how frustrating and demoralizing it was trying to convince other students to come along, to meet these incredible seniors. A one-hour visit would do so much to brighten their day. It was always a tough sell. No one wanted to spend time with seniors; it was much easier to ignore them and read to children. Continue reading

7 reasons I’m grateful for the nonprofit sector

[Image description: Two puppies—a pug and a golden retriever maybe?—and a kitten, with a Thanksgiving basket filled with pumpkins and pine cones and stuff, in front of a splotchy brown and grey background. I think this is a horribly Photoshopped picture. But oh well—puppies and a kitten! Image obtained from pixabay.com]

Hi everyone. It is Thanksgiving in the US this week, a time for us all to slow down, stuff our faces with food, and try to avoid getting into drunken arguments with our older brother, who is a successful real estate investor who is always like “blah blah I’m so successful, when are you going to find a real job, derp derpity derp you ridiculous hippie with your Tofurky blah blah derp derp get a haircut.”

OK, he doesn’t ever say that, but I know he’s thinking it.

It is also a time for us to reflect on the things for which we are grateful. It has been a rough year in the US and the world, and it looks like it’s going to get worse before it gets better. We have our work cut out for us. But I want to just take a moment today to express my gratitude to our sector and everyone in it. Here are some things I am thankful for, in no particular order:

We have kind and brilliant people: Nonprofit work is difficult AF, with the overhead BS and the clueless public looking down on us, among hundreds of challenges. It takes a certain type of badass to do it. That’s you. You’re an amazing unicorn who brings balance to the world. You’re a Jedi unicorn, and I’m so glad you exist. This work, as hard as it is, is also fun. That’s because many of you, in addition to being kind and smart, are also hilarious! I love our sector because we have the best people ever.

We provide jobs and strengthen the economy: We are the third largest sector, we employ ten percent of the workforce, and we contribute 900 billion to the economy every year. (Here’s more data). Millions of jobs are created, and as many families are supported by these jobs, because of our sector. I know we have a lot of things we need to improve on (cough, stop asking for salary history, cough), but I am thankful every day that I get to do this for a living, that I get to do what I love while being able to support my family.

We handle stuff no one wants to do: So much of our work is because our government fails to do its job. Sometimes I daydream about a society where people would look out for one another, maybe paying more taxes so that the entire community would benefit. And then we nonprofits would be put out of business, and some of us would be able to pursue our dreams of opening a vegan food truck or something. Unfortunately, that is not yet the world we live in. So I am grateful for our sector coming in and filling out the gaps in society that leave so many of our neighbors behind.

We restore and build community: My family came over to the US when I was 8. We lost many things. The worst part though—besides getting haircuts from our dad because we were poor—was that our community was gone. I remember how lonely those first few years were. Many nonprofits stepped in to help my family. We got food and warm clothing and cooking utensils. But we also started regaining the feeling of belonging to a community that cared about us. With so many forces out there trying to tear families apart, I am deeply grateful for nonprofits and the work you all do to build and restore community.

We amplify voices that may not always be heard: Being a kid for whom English is a second language, I remember what it was like to not have a voice, to be taunted for being different and made to feel unwanted. You always feel like you live in the shadows, and eventually you might start to believe that you belong there. So many of you work hard to lift up the voices of people who may feel like they don’t matter or that society does not want them. We are not perfect at this, but we try. I am thankful every day for those who try.

We stand defiantly against injustice: This past year I’ve been so inspired by advocacy organizations and activists who stand firm against injustice. While people are getting deported and torches are lit in hateful marches, so many in our sector have been mobilizing to challenge bigotry and hatred in all its forms. You educate, you change laws, you protect people. Sometimes it feels like it is too much, like the tides are too strong. I am thankful for all of you who say “Screw the tides!” and jump in the water.

We bring hope: Since last Thanksgiving, many communities have been short on hope. It’s hard to have hope when you live in fear like so many of our neighbors have to do each day. The generalized anxiety has been pervasive. During these times, what has lifted me and so many others is knowing that good people like you are out there. I know that hope, like community, is not an outcome many of us put on our logic models or theory of change, but this is one of the most important things we do as a sector.

I wrote a while ago that nonprofits are like air, and for-profits are like food. Everyone can see food, take pictures of it, call themselves “foodies.” Even though air is all around us, no one acknowledges it unless for some reason it is not there. No one calls themselves an “airie.” We nonprofits are often not seen or appreciated until our services are needed.

This week, I hope that while you take time to be thankful for all your blessings, you also take a moment to feel appreciated for the work that you do every day, even if your family has no idea what you do or even looks down on your work, even if you rarely hear thank you from the people you serve, even if you will never see the difference you may be making. You strengthen the economy, lift up families, restore hope and community, amplify voices, and make our world better. You’re a badass Jedi unicorn, and I appreciate you. Please try to get some rest this week. 

Now, who wants a serving of Tofurky? Anyone? 

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Charlottesville and a time for gracious anger

[Image description: A raging fire in the background. In the foreground is the silhouette of a wooden chair and some branches. Image obtained from Pixabay.com]

Hi everyone. If you have been reading the news this weekend about the white supremacists, hooded KKK members, and Nazis protesting in Charlottesville and the car the plowed into counter-protesters, killing several and injuring dozens of others, and our president’s cowardly response blaming “both sides,” you may be feeling a combination of weariness and hopelessness and anger. And fear for the people we love and for our country, the United States. This feeling has become familiar these past few months. I don’t really know what to say in this post. I know the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends…I don’t know. In recent months it seems that this arc is bending the opposite way, toward injustice, racism, misogyny, bigotry. “The heat here is nothing compared to what you’re going to get in the ovens,” says a white supremacist in the protest. It seems our side, the side that fights for inclusivity and justice and compassion, is losing.

A while ago, a colleague of mine, Nancy Long of 501 Commons, shared with me her philosophy of cultivating gratitude and impatience and how we must work toward a balance between the two, the balance of appreciating what we have, but to be impatient and to use that energy to push for change. This concept has stuck with me over the years; it is wise counsel on some of the darkest days.

Reflecting on Nancy’s words, I realize the horrible events and the state of generalized fear and anxiety of the past few months require us to balance something more difficult than Gratitude and Impatience, and that is Grace and Anger. Continue reading

Why we need to stop asking “What do you do?”

[Image description: A right hand is in focus, extended toward the viewer, as if this person is offering to shake hands. The person is out of focus, but appears to be wearing a grey button-down shirt with a black blazer. The composition is focused on the hand and torso, so we don’t see the person’s head.]

A while ago, while I was seeking input for a post on how we can all be more disability-inclusive, a colleague mentioned that we should drop the get-to-know-you question “What do you do?” because people with disabilities face significant employment discrimination, and this question is often a painful reminder of that. Another colleague of mine who is brilliant and talented and hilarious and wheelchair-enabled told me she spent seven years searching before someone hired her. I can imagine all the times during those seven years when people asked her “What do you do?” and how she must have felt. This has made me think of the “to-do” culture that we have and how it’s been affecting our work.

I learned a few years ago, through my participation in the German Marshall Memorial Fellowship, that the US has a default “To-Do” culture. The first thing we ask someone we meet is about what they do. Actions, in our culture, define us. For other cultures, though, are more of a “To-Be” culture, and you are defined less from what you do, and more from who you are:  Your relationships, your family history, your beliefs, your passions, your haircuts, etc. Continue reading

5 lessons for nonprofits from the Seahawks’ bizarre Super Bowl loss

seahawksHi everyone. I am trying to calm down enough so that I can write this week’s blog post. But I can’t. This post is going to be crappy. Because the whole City of Seattle, probably the whole world, is wondering “WTF, Seahawks?!!!!” This is painful. They were half a yard from touchdown, and from winning the game, and they decided to THROW the ball?! The Patriots intercepted, sealing the most ridiculous ending to a football game ever.

Everyone in Seattle is going through the stages of grief right now. Of course, this is Seattle, so the stages are: Denial, Righteous Anger, Hot Yoga, Organic Juice Cleanse, Bargaining at a Farmer’s Market, Composting, Existential Despair, Biking to Happy Hour, and Acceptance…of Marijuana.

Seahawks, did you forget that you have the most effective running back—Marshawn Lynch—in the history of football?! Was he invisible?! Why didn’t you just give the fricken ball to Marshawn so he can barrel through the Pats and win us our second Super Bowl so that I could polish off my third Corona and write “What nonprofits could learn from the Seahawks, Super Bowl Champions, part 2”?!!! (Read part 1 here) Continue reading